A majority of urban residents across Europe do not want to see air pollution return to pre-Covid-19 levels and support changes in transport to protect clean air, according to a YouGov opinion polling in 21 European cities.
Levels of air pollution from traffic and other sources plummeted when countries imposed pandemic lockdown measures.
Data from the University of York estimates that particulate matter pollution has dropped by between a third to as much as 50% in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.
There have also been falls of around 25% in Manchester, York and Belfast, with smaller declines in Glasgow and Newcastle.
For nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, the data also shows declines of a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff, and drops of 10-20% in the other cities.
Just under two out of every three people (64%) on average said they do not want to go back to pre-Covid pollution levels.
Roughly the same proportion (68%) agreed that cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if it means preventing polluting cars from entering city centres to protect clean air, with as many as 63% of drivers themselves in support.
Around three quarters (74%) of respondents said cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if this requires reallocating public space to walking, cycling and public transport, with just 10% opposed.
Even though there is reluctance to use public transport due to the potential risk of contagion, regular users of buses and trains said hygiene is a deal-breaker.
Four in five people (81%) who primarily used public transport before the pandemic are willing to return: 54% said they will start riding buses, trams and trains again if sufficient hygiene measures are taken to prevent Covid-19 contagion; the remaining 27% are set to return regardless of risk.
William Todts, executive director at clean transport NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), said: “Europeans are demanding more bike lanes, safer public transport and fewer polluting cars.
"And the mayors of Paris, Brussels and London are building on this overwhelming public support by expanding cycling lanes and reinstating low-emission zones. The challenge now is to make these ‘temporary’ sustainable measures permanent, replace polluting cars with shared, electric vehicles and get other cities to follow suit."
When surveyed online for T&E and the not-for-profit European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) between May 14-21, the 7,545 adults of voting age in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the UK and Belgium gave remarkably consistent answers, despite their various economic, class, age and gender backgrounds.
While 14% of the city dwellers surveyed tended to cycle on work days before lockdown, now one in five (21%) plan to cycle more when lockdown ends fully. For walkers, the figures are 32% and 35% respectively.
Some city mayors have been quick to adapt transport systems during the pandemic.
Berlin has new ‘pop-up bike lanes’, while greater Paris is investing €300 million in a 680km cycling network.
Krakow is upgrading its cycling infrastructure and widening pavements, while Brussels is deprioritising cars in its city centre and adding 40km of bike lanes.
Dublin is removing car parking to boost cycling safety and physical distancing.
Late last month the European Commission unveiled a €1.85 trillion recovery plan to reboot the bloc’s economy baldly hit by the pandemic.
The proposal includes a 25% climate spending target. It stresses the need to prioritise investments in sustainable vehicles, charging stations and cycling.